The Mediocre Prose of 2001: A Space Odyssey

There is a peculiar pleasure in reading science fiction a decade after the “events of the future” were intended to have taken place. Remember, the fictional events of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey are entering their tenth anniversary.

I won’t go into a labor-intensive compare and contrast of what Clarke got right and wrong (briefly, satellite news and the iPad are both accurately predicted, while he was ambitious on our colonization of the moon by1994). What is interesting instead is how 2001 plays as literature.

Part 1 stars the “missing link” human ancestors, while Part 2 brings us forward three million years and presents the modern man. However, it presents him in cliche science fiction prose.  The problem science fiction has always struggled with is ideas over people. Any story that devotes attention to a concept over a character is doomed to age poorly, and I think 2001 suffers from lower quality writing. Consider the writing of Necromancer versus that in 2001. The style and the characters are miles apart. Necromancer offers fascinating dialog and complex players. Comparatively, 2001 is only a step above Dan Brown in its cardboard conversations.

What saves these scenes is the brilliant plot device of the monolith. This object, discovered on the moon three million years after one appeared to the apes on earth, is simply thrilling to ponder. Clarke’s brilliance as a storyteller doesn’t lie in his prose, which is young adult quality at best, rather, he is innovative in telling an unrealistic story in a realistic way. It strikes at themes of curiosity, the unknowable, the cosmos beyond our reason. This is not Battlefield Earth where the aliens shoot lasers and fly around in space ships. This is an unsolvable mystery that is all the more haunting because it does not feel like a conventional story. It feels more real. 

Next, we’ll get to meet the famous computer HAL.

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